For much of her life, Emily Yang struggled with an inability to say no or speak for herself.
“It’s the culture that we were brought up with,” she said. “As Asians, we are always taught to be humble and not speak up.”
But after two years in crypto, Yang is no longer a people pleaser. Now, she’s Pplpleasr.
That’s the handle the 27-year-old artist goes by in the non-fungible token (NFT) art world, where Yang is a rising star. She recently sold an animation advertisement for $525,000, created an art collective with more than $700,000 from sales of her works, contributed all of the above to charity, and made the Forbes 30 "Under 30 2022" list.
The advertisement sale was made for the biggest decentralized exchange, Uniswap, a protocol using smart contracts to facilitate transactions on the Ethereum blockchain. The art collective is PleasrDAO, a decentralized automated organization (DAO) that experiments with shared ownership of art pieces.
Perhaps most anticipated among the NFT smart set, Yang just launched her first Web 3 interactive short film, "White Rabbit," without outside commission, on her newly established decentralized film distribution platform, Shibuya.
A few weeks before Shibuya's unveiling, CoinDesk found Yang standing in the dim room of a digital art gallery in downtown Manhattan. A camera crew surrounded her as she roamed the room filled with offbeat NFT animations accompanied by psychedelic fast-tempo soundtracks.
She was in the middle of a project with Coinbase (COIN), the Nasdaq-listed cryptocurrency exchange, and Freethink, a digital media startup, that records her life as an NFT artist.
The crew visited her apartment, dined with PleasrDAO members and went to the Superchief Gallery NFT in New York, billed as the world’s first in-person NFT gallery.
Wearing blue jeans and a black, fitted T-shirt, Yang recounted her journey from frustrated, aspiring artist to NFT celebrity – and how she took advantage of decentralized technologies to explore new frontiers of expression.
“I’ve been drawing ever since I was really young,” Yang said. “I like to constantly take in information, whether it's the commercials, movies, music, videos, TV shows, anime.” But with Asian parents, there was a part of her life where she had to “forget about” the artsy part of herself.
Born in Taiwan, Yang went to elementary school in Canada and moved back to Taiwan with her family until high school. She then attended the University of California, Los Angeles, for a design media arts degree. It was in college that she rediscovered her love for the creation of 3D animation in Pixar movies.
Yang worked as a visual effects artist at several studios since she graduated in 2015. Intermittently she designed visual graphics for motion pictures like "Batman v. Superman" for Moving Picture Company and "Wonder Woman" for Double Negative, as well as the announcement cinematic of the video game Diablo IV for Blizzard Entertainment.
She knew about cryptocurrency since 2014 or 2015 but did not have money to take part in the trend. In 2017, after realizing that her savings in traditional banks were only earning income at a 5% interest rate every year, she started researching cryptocurrency on Reddit. Soon she became fascinated with the innovation in blockchain technology. However, the crypto bear market hit in 2018 so she put the matter on the back burner.
Fast forward to 2020, which Yang says was one of the lowest points in her life.
Her job offer to be a digital artist at Apple (AAPL) was rescinded due to the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployed and worried about her future, she started seeking other ways to make money.
That moment coincided with the so-called DeFi Summer – the period of mid-2020 when the crypto industry suddenly saw a proliferation of newly launched decentralized finance (DeFi) protocols – semi-automated, blockchain-based software programs allowing users to make transactions without financial intermediaries like banks.
A friend told Yang to check the DeFi projects out on Twitter. She soon found out there were all sorts of memes with a sense of humor that resonated with her but few of them were high-quality, emotional work, in her opinion.
“They should hire me,” Yang joked to her friend about the lack of creative talent in the space. She turned the joke into reality by selling some of her personal artwork to the DeFi projects as Twitter posts. “This was to pass time while I was applying for jobs,” Yang said, “I only did that to make myself feel like I was not wasting life.”
Yang soon made a name for herself. Many of her animations went viral on Twitter, and soon Uniswap, a protocol of much bigger scale, approached her with an ad request for the launch of a system upgrade. She then made the video named “x*y = k,” the price curve function behind Uniswap. In it she portrayed a unicorn walking in a colorful forest, searching for the Ethereum wonderland.
The decision to auction off the video as a NFT for charity changed Yang’s life.
“It ended up selling for 310 ether (ETH), and then the PleasrDAO was born. All these can happen at once,” Yang said. At the time, in March 2021, 310 ETH was worth around $525,000 and PleasrDAO was originally a project gathering the community’s strength to support Yang’s work and go beyond.
In its intro, PleasrDAO members wrote that their mission is to “collect digital art that represents and funds important ideas, movements and causes that have been memorialized on-chain as NFTs.”
In September she cooperated with Fortune to create the Fortune Journalism PleasrFund.
The fund is dedicated to “advancing independent investigative journalism,” according to Fortune’s account on Endaoment.
It was partly seeded by the proceeds of Yang’s artwork for Fortune, including a print magazine cover that sold for $768,000 as a NFT. She created the Stand with Asian Community Fund with what she made from the Uniswap video. The fund quickly distributed $600,000 to 24 grassroots groups and small nonprofits that can make an immediate impact on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, according to its community fund impact report.
Cultural conflicts are something with which Yang personally struggles. She fights it with her ideal in art.
“I would say every creator’s dream is that they can work for themselves,” Yang said, “whether you are a writer or filmmaker or artist. Instead of executing somebody else's vision, you want to make your own.”
What is now on the Shibuya platform is only the first episode of the "White Rabbit" series. Viewers holding producers passes can vote for the one of the two endings at the end of the first episode, deciding the future fate of the main character and her plot development .
“It’s an animated series,” Yang said a few weeks before the launch, her eyes lighting up, “The idea is to explore themes about crowdfunding and Web 3 interactive short films.”
Standing in the gallery with the Uniswap piece projected behind her, Yang talked to the camera about her motives. Galleries like this are where she goes when she experiences creator’s block, she said.
“This is a very exciting time where we like-minded people, who are not comfortable with just accepting the reality, come up with creative ways to artistically or technically push the boundaries of what's possible,” she said.
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